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Only A Northern Song

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Burt Hummel once saw a news report on the dangers of using faux rock key hiders, and ever since then he’d been afraid of hiding a house key anywhere in the yard. The dramatic-reenactment image of men in ski masks carefully picking up the key rock and opening the front door of a modest suburban home to cart out an oversized television had made an impact. As though really dedicated robbers wouldn’t just smash a window.

Whenever Kurt was locked out, he had to resort to the level of home invasion. The sliding glass door in the back “locked” in the sense that it didn’t open to a size that would allow an actual human to pass through, but the locking mechanism was a piece of wood fitted snugly into the track along which the door ran. Burt always said that he would get around to fixing the real lock. Kurt didn’t want to think about that.

It was hard to find the small weather-beaten rake on the patio in the dark, but eventually he tripped around enough that his shoe landed on plastic tines, and he picked it up in both hands to angle the handle gingerly through the miniscule gap between the door and the wall. It took three tries before his swipes actually made contact with the wood, and he heard rather than saw the block tumble onto the linoleum. He set the rake gently against the window, then slid open the door. He did it slowly, quietly, as if he really was breaking in. Or as if he’d wake the house if he made any sudden movements.

He stood absolutely still one step inside the door, the cold air feeling its way around him, moving like the touch of fingertips over his back and across his arms. It fluttered the papers attached to the refrigerator by magnets, and the ones still spread over the kitchen table. He hadn’t been back. Not really. Nothing but the walk from the front door to the basement and back out again; clothes, textbooks, essentials.

This was what he had been afraid of. This feeling, wending its way up from the clenched and uncomfortable base of his stomach, shuddering his lungs and squeezing his heart, blocking his throat. This wasn’t his house. That was what it felt like. This place wasn’t familiar, it wasn’t warm, it wasn’t bright. It was cold and dark and Kurt had never seen it this way. He could remember why everything was the way it was, but it still felt like a stranger had set it up like this. The papers hanging on the refrigerator. The pots still stacked in the draining board, bone dry. This was a weird facsimile of the house Kurt lived in.

He closed his eyes and slid the door quietly shut behind him, breaking the lingering tendrils of cold.

When he opened his eyes, it wasn’t any different.

The words to Papa, Can You Hear Me? were still rolling around inside of his head. He hadn’t been able to shake them. They’d taken a firm hold on him as he’d watched the retreating backs of Rachel, Quinn – Mercedes. Mercedes. If there was a person, if there was any person on the planet Kurt could reach out to, it would be Mercedes. But he couldn’t. Something had bound his arms to his sides and set up this unbreakable pane of glass between him and the rest of the world. There was this whole wealth of comfort waiting for him, but he was never going to reach it, they were never going to come in at the same angle, because Mercedes felt like someone was watching, and Kurt felt like he was on an empty stage with nothing but the eyes of monsters shining back at him out of the dark.

The wood in the hall creaked beneath his footsteps, light though they were, slow. He didn’t turn on any lamps. He didn’t want to. He wanted it to be like he wasn’t there, like this didn’t count, like he wasn’t making an impression on the house at all.

He stopped in the doorway of his father’s bedroom and let his eyes trail across to the dresser in the corner. It was old, the gray-blue paint chipped and faded, one side legless and held up by volumes of an old encyclopedia set, which had been there so long that the covers had been nearly rubbed away by the shifting and jostling of the drawers.

He crossed to it, his stomach clenching tight again along the way, a faint whine beginning in his ears. His face swam into view in the warped mirror hanging above. He looked like a ghost, pale in the dark, eyes red-rimmed and swollen.

He could remember when he was too small to see into the mirror. He could remember when he was just tall enough to hook his chin over the top of the dresser if he stood on his tiptoes.

He felt a weird reverence when he reached out both hands to wrap his fingers around the drawer pulls of the top drawer. They were a little tarnished, a little rough in his hands, but they’d always felt that way. He tugged gently, then harder, and the drawer gave a little, then a little more. It was empty. They were all empty, except for the bottom drawer. A jewelry box was tucked away in that one. It rattled a little when he pulled the second open. (Kurt used to take the box out and run his hands through the gold and silver chains when he was young, put the rings, costume and anniversary and heirloom, on each of his fingers and wiggle them in the light to make them shine.)

He pulled them all open, all of the drawers, and felt a hand close around his heart when he smelled it. His mother’s perfume. He’d been afraid (so, so afraid, shaking, terrified) that it would be gone. He hadn’t touched this place in three years. It could have disappeared, faded with her memory, with the last of his dad’s reluctance to move on. But it lingered. Like maybe it knew he’d need it again.

He crossed to his dad’s closet and opened the door. And there it was. Cologne. Inexpensive but overwhelmingly comforting. He pulled the door open wider, then stepped back. Sat down on the wooden floor. Lay back with his arms and legs sprawled and breathed in his family.

He clawed the persistent lyrics (the trees are so much taller, and I feel so much smaller, the moon is twice as lonely and the stars are half as bright) out of his head, shoving them away by force though they tried to cling to him. He tried to find something better.

Oh please, say to me you’ll let me be your man...

“Kurt?”

He stopped. “Finn,” he said, his eyes closed. He could feel his face making a halfhearted attempt to redden; he knew it looked strange, lying on the floor in the middle of his father’s bedroom, with the dresser and closet open, every light in the house off. But the tone of Finn’s voice wasn’t embarrassed or put off. He was worried. He sounded worried.

“What’re you doing on the floor?”

Kurt let out a shaking breath. “Lying down.”

He heard Finn shift his weight in the doorway; the floor creaked. “I can – kind of see that.” He paused. “Can I come in?”

He didn’t sound like he was going to leave if Kurt said no. He sounded like he was going to stay right in the doorway even if Kurt started screaming at him, and Kurt suddenly felt so, so heavy with that thought. Because maybe at some point, without Kurt noticing, what Finn said had become the truth. I know it may not look like what everybody else has but I thought we were – sort of a family. And Finn wouldn’t leave Kurt in the middle of his empty house by himself while his dad was possibly-dying in the hospital. Family. When had that happened?

“Yes,” he said, finally, his voice a breath of a sound.

Finn crossed the room and Kurt heard the mattress springs creak at the edge of his dad’s bed. He opened his eyes and rolled his head to the side to see Finn leaning towards him with his elbows on his knees, looking down at him out of the dark, confused but concerned. His closed his eyes again and rolled his head away.

“We called you,” Finn said. “My mom and me, I mean. When you didn’t get back the time you normally do.”

Visiting hours ended at the same time every night, and Kurt would drive to Finn and Carole’s to sleep. She didn’t want him staying alone here. She’d been the one to help him pack, to help him sort the house out to a point. She’d been the one to turn off all of the lights as they’d left. Kurt felt guilty, then, about kicking her out of his father’s hospital room, then disappearing , then leaving his phone in his car to belt an instrumental version of Defying Gravity to the glove box when they called.

But autopilot had been cruel to him as he left the hospital, and instead of heading to the Hudsons’ he had ended up here, parked in front of his own empty house, and by then he’d had to go inside. Even without his house keys.

“Sorry,” he murmured.

There were a few long beats of silence. Finn let his knees swing together and apart, making the bed creak quietly in tempo. “What were you just singing?” he asks, after the silence has passed out of awkward and somewhere into necessary .

Kurt opens his eyes again to look up at Finn. “The Beatles. I Want To Hold Your Hand.”

Finn smiled a little. It tugged the corners of his mouth in a way that Kurt thought was a little more literal than that way it happened to other people. “I didn’t know you liked The Beatles. They seem a little – I don’t know. Old for you, or something.”

Kurt sat up. He tugged lightly at his shirt and brushed at his arms. “Carousel premiered in 1945. Nothing is too old for me.” He looked to his side, at the dresser still waiting there, open, the shadow of the jewelry box still sitting in the bottom drawer. “My mom liked the Beatles. She sang them to me. That’s why I like them.”

Finn followed Kurt’s line of sight, and Kurt could feel the pieces slotting into place in Finn’s mind, like gears matching and beginning to move. “That’s the dresser you told me about that one time,” he said, nodding toward the faded piece of furniture. “Right? Is that what you were doing?”

Kurt nodded. He pulled his knees up to hug them against his chest. “My dad still hasn’t gotten rid of it.”

“We still have the chair my dad used to sit in.” Finn shrugged. “That’s pretty much my fault, but it’s probably for the same reason.” He paused. “Is that smell your mom’s perfume?”

Kurt nodded. He could still find it in the air, and it still struck him with images for which he didn’t have context anymore: a stuffed animal, a top-down view of the sink in the kitchen, a fragment of an emotion or a thought or an idea. It made him feel like he could find those things, if he stayed long enough, tried hard enough.

Finn smiled again. It was a little dopey. A little lost in itself. “It smells nice,” he said. “It smells kind of how I thought it would. I guess how I imagined it, when you told me about it.”

A weird, blooming feeling started in Kurt’s chest at that. It was warm and sort of overwhelming, and he had to tuck his face into his knees to hide the creeping , embarrassed blush and the sudden threat of tears. Finn had created his own mental image of Little Kurt lying sprawled on his parents’ bedroom floor, trying to reach for and capture scent memories of his dead mother. It was touching and kind of horrible.

He felt a hand land on his shoulder and squeeze lightly, and they were quiet for a little while longer.

Finn let out a breath. “I’m scared about your dad,” he murmured, like it was a confession.

Kurt sniffed. “Me, too,” he said, through a mostly-closed throat. Then, all in a rush: “I don’t want this to happen to me again.”

The hand on Kurt’s shoulder squeezed again. “Me, neither.”

Kurt couldn’t tell if Finn meant I don’t want this to happen to you again, either or I don’t want this to happen to me again, either, but he put his hand over Finn’s hand on his shoulder anyway, because he knew that Finn probably meant both.

“I don’t want to have to go through this again,” Kurt said, and he could feel the tears around the words, but there was no way he was going to be able to stop himself, “I don’t want to go to another funeral. I don’t want to sing John Mellencamp songs when I’m upset. I don’t want to have to remember my dad as a bottle of cologne.”

There were so many more things (I don’t want the kids in glee to look at me like I’m this irreparable, unapproachable thing, I don’t want to find out what happens when you’re an orphan at sixteen, I don’t want to be this selfish) but they were all suddenly lost in the waves of racking sobs that shook his shoulders and made his breath ragged, made this horrible sound start in the back of his throat. Then Finn was on the floor on his knees with his arms around Kurt, pulling him in, and Kurt clutched desperately at the fabric of Finn’s hoodie. He cried against Finn’s chest, loudly, violently, and he’d thought it would make him feel better to completely lose control of himself, but mostly he just felt nauseous and uncomfortable and hopeless.

They stayed like that for a while, with the sound of Kurt’s wailing filling the room, filtering out into the hallway, seeping a new memory into the walls. No matter the whole hideous shame of it, Kurt couldn’t make himself stop, until it naturally began to taper away.

When his breath evened out and the tidal waves stopped rolling through his chest, Kurt pulled back, embarrassed. But Finn was looking at him, a little awkward, a little worried – and Finn’s eyes were wet and red, too. Finn’s chest hitched the same way Kurt’s did, little catches of breath.

“Sorry,” Finn said. He rubbed his eyes with his arm, pressing it there for a moment to get himself more under control.

“It’s okay,” Kurt said, a little lightheaded. “Really, it’s – it’s fine.” He reached half-blindly for Finn’s shoulder, and squeezed when he found it. “I – thanks.” For letting me cry on you. For crying about my dad.

Finn shook his head. “Don’t mention it.” He pushed himself up, wobbled a little and then found his balance. Then he reached out a hand. “We should go back. My mom’s going to freak out.”

Kurt nodded. He took Finn’s hand and let himself be pulled up. When he wavered, Finn kept him upright. “Do you want me to drive you home?” Finn asked, frowning.

“No. I’m fine,” Kurt said. He turned around. “Just--” He moved to the dresser, feeling Finn’s eyes following him. He closed the bottom drawer, then the others, one by one, until the top one settled back against the wooden frame, and the sweet, faint smell of his mother’s perfume began to fade. “Okay,” he said. He turned around and looked at Finn again. Finn had already closed the closet door.

“Let’s go.”

 

It was harder to get the block of wood back into position, but it wasn’t impossible. Kurt could feel Finn watching him, half-smiling at what was probably a ridiculous, concentrated look on his face as he tried to flip the block over onto the track without accidentally sliding the door more open with the arm holding the rake.

“You aren’t allowed to mock me for this,” Kurt puffed, his breath frosting in the crisp air.

“I’m not mocking you. I’m watching.” Finn had his hands stuffed into the pockets of his hoodie. His eyes were on the rake, following its progress as Kurt swept it carefully at the makeshift lock. There was a pause where the only sound was the scrape of the rake handle against the kitchen floor. Then Finn said, “You should sing something for glee. It might make you feel better.”

Kurt’s mind reflooded with annoyance at the suggestion. “What would I sing? The rest of them are singing about Jesus.”

Finn shrugged. “I don’t know. Break the mold, or something.” He paused. “You should sing a Beatles song.”

The block flipped up to its place on the sliding door’s track, and Kurt exhaled his relief as he set the rake back against the wall. He turned around to look at Finn and frowned, a little. “Maybe,” he said. Then, strangely heavy, “Thank you, Finn.”

Finn smiled. “Don’t mention it.” He looked over his shoulder. “You want to get going? It’s freezing out here.”

Kurt nodded. “Go ahead. I’ll see you there.”

Finn looked slightly concerned. “You sure?” When Kurt nodded, he shrugged. “Okay,” he said. “See you at home.” Then he turned and walked around the side of the house.

Kurt watched him go. Then he turned back to glass door and leaned against it, looking through. The mess was still the same; the papers, the pots, the dark staring right back at him. The feeling in his chest was still the same, too; he was still afraid, and cold and sad and desperate. This was all still happening.

But it was a little easier to breathe. It was a little lighter. He leaned his forehead on the glass and felt his breath condensing against it, and he promised himself, silently, closing his eyes. He promised that he would bring his dad back here. He promised that they would turn on all the lights. He promised that he wouldn’t give this up.

Not when it was just starting. Not when there was suddenly so much more.

He promised.